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Microsoft seeks to capture a generation of Office 365 users

Free subscriptions for college kids could make them customers for life

Microsoft is offering college students its cloud-based Office service free for six months, a move that could help solidify Office as a package they’ll want to keep using once they graduate.

The offer gives eligible students Office 365 for three months plus an additional three months if they share the offer on their Facebook pages.

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The bundle comes with 20G Byte of extra space in SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage service that enables customers to access documents from phones, tablets and PCs.

UPDATE: Microsoft says the offer is good through "May 12, 2013 or while supplies last at which time the Offer ends." How large is the supply? A spokesperson for Microsoft says, "On the record, we have nothing to share."

Office 365 University sells for $79 total for a four-year subscription, already inexpensive. If the free offer attracts more students who then buy into the service for the rest of their undergraduate years, in four years Microsoft will have a wave of college grads entering the marketplace well versed in Office 365. Perhaps they will even be dependent on it.

The upsides for customers are that the service always provides the latest version of Office fully patched, making it more stable and secure but also lifting the chore of customers carrying out updates on their own. With SkyDrive, any documents stored there can be reached and edited via tablets and smartphones – Windows, Apple and Android – as well PCs borrowed from others.

The downside is another monthly bill to pay in the form of the service fee.

For Microsoft the upside is huge. If it can make thousands of college students familiar with and reliant on the service, its potential to penetrate more businesses grows down the road. These graduates will seek jobs and perhaps see the utility of having documents always available over just about any Internet-connected device.

If the bring-your-own-device trend continues, they may put pressure on IT departments to provide the benefits of the service through work.

Microsoft has made it abundantly clear that it prefers  a service model for delivering Office – it says it wants to be thought of as a services company – and the university package will advance that effort.

It can also be an important element in encouraging acceptance of a Microsoft ecosystem in which all devices share a similar interface as well as access to the same content. That’s the long-term goal and whatever it costs to give away free and discounted Office 365 services are woth it if it promotes the cause.

(Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/1058 blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/Tim_Greene.)

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